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A Long Time Coming: Artisanal American Vermouth
By Marguerite Thomas
Jun 30, 2015
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In view of the fact that sales of artisanal vermouth in the United States skyrocketed in 2014, making vermouth one of the fastest-growing categories in the US wine trade, the recent release of Adam Ford’s book, Vermouth:  The Revival Of The Spirit That Created America’s Cocktail Culture is well timed.  Adam Ford knows first hand what he’s talking about:  A lawyer by trade, he has created Atsby Vermouth, one of America’s leading craft vermouths, which he produces on Long Island’s North Fork.

Nicely written and beautifully illustrated, the book moves chronologically from the beginnings of the world’s oldest spirit (vermouth is at least 10,000 years old) through the history of vermouth in America, and on to contemporary American vermouth.

Along the way, Ford takes us from pre-Prohibition New York (we learn that over half the cocktails prior to World War I featured vermouth as an essential ingredient) to post-Prohibition times.  When Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the twenty-first amendment repealing Prohibition, Ford writes that the president said:  “’What America needs now is a drink.’  He then poured himself a martini, with two parts gin and one part vermouth.”
On to World War II--and its aftermath.  “Americans tend to drink during wartime and immediately afterward,” Ford tells us.  “Since our country averages a major war every twenty years, we’re always drinking.”  (After the war American wineries took a commanding share of the domestic vermouth market:  Gallo with 15.4%, United Vintners 14.4% and Mogen David, owners of G&D vermouth, 10.2 %.)

Then comes the Mad Men years, when Americans begin fleeing to the suburbs.  “They started drinking more often and larger amounts.  They wanted drinks that would drown their sorrows,” writes Ford.  No more “wishy-washy” cocktails made with half or even one-third vermouth--what these folks wanted were martinis made by adding a drop of vermouth to the cocktail glass, swishing it around, pouring it out and filling the glass with gin. 

The heavy-handed drinkers were followed by the Hippie generation and the Baby Boomers, whose attitudes towards booze were summed up by James Villas writing in Esquire Magazine in 1973:  “Young people do not like Martinis and they’re not drinking them.  Ever!  Anywhere!”  Wine was what they drank, and in 1967, for the first time in history table wine sales exceeded fortified wine sales.  Hardly anyone younger than 35 ever bought a bottle of Vermouth, says Ford, adding, “And so it was for the next 30 years.”
In the early years of the 21st century everything changed.  In 2012 there were three modern American vermouth producers; today there are dozens of companies in this country commercially producing vermouth, with dozens more in the wings. 

Cocktails, too, have changed:  Generally speaking, they have swung back to the two-parts vermouth to one-part-spirits ratio of pre-war years.  On the downside (for me, at least) they also tend to have a lot more ingredients than I generally like, and often call for more esoteric ingredients (tobacco syrup anyone?) than would be found in the bar of your average home mixologist.  (That term, by the way, was first coined in 1856, says Ford.) 

Happily, the recipes in Ford’s book tend to be relatively simple, calling for three to five ingredients on average, including bitters and garnish.  Each recipe calls for specific all-American brands of both vermouth and spirits, which is educational (for those of us who would like to broaden our imbibing horizons), but it’s also easy to substitute brands we already have on hand.

One of my favorite recipes is the “Monosabio”, created by Garry Severin for the Lamb’s Club.  This “Brunch Cocktail” calls for 2 oz dry vermouth, 1 oz grapefruit juice, ¾ oz Aperol, ½ oz each lime juice and lemon juice, plus a raspberry or grapefruit round for garnish.  Almost as refreshing as the drink itself is Ford’s headnote:  “The Monosabio is the red scarf worn by bullfighters’ assistants.  This is a riff on the cocktail called Death in the Afternoon, named after Hemingway’s book on bullfighting.  When Garry Severin served this at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic in 2013, he said he hoped this would help ‘kill the tyranny of the mimosa.’  I can only hope this happens.”